Note: This story appears in the Thursday, Aug. 8 newspaper on Page B1.
When you’ve been doing something as long as Frank Solich has been coaching college football, and doing it as well as he has, the yearly outlook press conference tends to sound like so many others.
That was the situation on Wednesday morning when Solich, Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin, Defensive Coordinator Ron Collins and Special Teams Coordinator Brian Haines answered questions during an hour-long Q&A session inside Peden Tower.
No, the Bobcats — the heavy MAC East favorites this season — aren’t starting from scratch. Yes, there are certain things that need to happen along the way to make the predictions a reality. But, you’d be hard pressed to find another MAC East coach that wouldn’t trade places with Solich in a second.
“We want to be a complete football team, and display that from the start,” said Solich, the nation’s oldest FBS head coach and now entering his 15th season with Ohio. “We have young talent, but we do have talent.”
Officially, Ohio returns 14 starters from last season — four on offense, seven on defense and three special teams standouts — but in truth in the Bobcats have more than that returning. Solich cited 23 players “who played significantly” last season as a big reason Ohio should be on the short list of MAC contenders this season.
It’s familiar territory for Ohio. The Bobcats were in the 2016 MAC title game and lost a one-possession game after a turnover on their final offensive possession. In both 2017 and ’18, Ohio appeared to be the class of the MAC East, but unexpected road losses at Akron (2017) and Miami (’18) denied the ‘Cats return trips to Detroit.
With star quarterback Nathan Rourke back to lead a young offense, and senior safety Javon Hagan anchoring a veteran defense, the big questions are few and far between for Ohio in training camp.
Well, all except one: what will it take for Ohio to avoid losing one game it can’t afford to in MAC play? Solich didn’t have a pat answer for that. Sometimes bad luck can be a factor, but Solich said the schedule won’t be a reason Ohio won’t make it back to Detroit in 2019.
Ohio avoids any five-day turnarounds during the season, has a bye before conference play, and will not play an arch-rival on the road on short rest while that opponent comes in with extra rest — which was the case with Miami in 2018.
“This is a year where (the schedule) doesn’t hit us real hard,” Solich said.
That’s why “depth” and “development” were the most often used words during Wednesday’s session. Solich, and every coordinator, referred to those two factors as being a primary focus of fall camp and potential swing factors come November.
“We have to be able to develop our backups because that is what we’re going to be defined by at the end of the year,” said Collins, now in his ninth season in Athens but first as the defensive coordinator.
“We all know what that’s like. We get into November, and we get lower on the depth chart. The biggest thing is being able to develop those guys and get them ready to go.”
Defensively, in the short term, that means finding more defensive tackles to line up in the middle of the defensive line. Ohio already has good depth in place at linebacker, defensive end and at cornerback.
Offensively, Albin has more answers to find. The Bobcats are young at the majority of the skill positions, and will have untested running backs and receivers who must step forward and deliver to augment Rourke’s talents and what should be another burly, physical offensive line.
Currently, Ohio has five active running backs vying to be the starter and redshirt freshman O’Shaan Allison is leading the pack.
“We’re repping all of them evenly. I’m preparing for all of them to play,” Albin explained. “There isn’t any question in my mind you’ll see every one of those guys throughout the season.”
On special teams, Ohio returns its long-snapper (Devin King), all-conference punter (Michael Farkas) and potentially the most accurate kicker in MAC history (Louie Zervos). With better depth at places like linebacker and corner, the Bobcats’ will have plenty of athletes to fill out cover teams.
Haines’ job is to make sure there isn’t any kind of slip from one of the best special teams units in the entire Group of Five conferences.
“Having (those guys back)…makes you feel pretty good,” Haines said.
If the Bobcats can find tackle depth on both lines of scrimmage, and get some of the young wideouts and running backs up to speed, it could be a banner season.
“We have some guys we need to develop,” Solich said. “It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take a little work, but I like the ability, and the leadership, on this team.”
Solich announced the 2019 set of captains on Wednesday. The list includes senior offensive tackle Austen Pleasants, junior defensive end Will Evans, junior wide receiver Cam Odom, senior safety Javon Hagan and senior quarterback Nathan Rourke.
Rourke was named a captain for a second straight season. For Hagan, it was his third consecutive season with captain status.
Pleasants, Evans and Odom were named captains for the first time in their college careers.
Solich said Wednesday that the book is not closed on any of the three players from the 2019 signing class that have yet to practice with the Bobcats.
RB Walter Wilbon III is injured but “should eventually start working his way back” into the competition at the position.
Meanwhile, both CB Keniuel Gates and DT Denzel Daxon have yet to appear in camp or on the active Ohio roster. Solich said both “should be ready to go in a short period of time.” Neither is thought to be injured, but likely dealing with NCAA clearinghouse issues.
On the injury front, RB Julian Ross is expected to play but may not return to active status until “the middle of fall camp.”
“He’s really frustrated,” Albin said of Ross. “But we don’t want a setback.”
Redshirt freshman WR Shane Hooks will be sidelined for a while longer with what Albin called a “sports hernia” and RB Jake Neatherton (leg) and WR Tyler Tupa (knee) are limited at the moment as well.